In one of Grandma’s stories, she found my mother in the backyard, middle of the night, a blood-soaked possum neatly wrapped around her arm, like she had killed one before. She refused to let it go, letting out a feral shriek as Grandma got closer. My mother only dropped the possum when Grandma could reach over and pet the back of her neck. It caused a scene in the neighborhood. The next morning, she took her to see a child shrink that explained how this was unusual behavior for a girl. Grandma said her bloody teeth shone in the moonlight, and that only she knew what my mother really was. Grandma wore these big silver rings that hung off her knuckles and rattled as she spoke. She had many secrets too. All the women from her time did.
At seven, I tip-toed into the narrow hall after being torn away from sleep by harsh noises coming from my mother’s studio. I tell people that peeking around the doorframe that night was when I first really met my mother—manic, painfully beautiful and violently gifted.
My father there, he stood over her, a fridge of man, large Polish stock, as gentle as could be. His strong, soft hands held up against her thrashing rage as she clawed and bit at him. I watched frightened, and when her eyes caught mine, she stopped and smiled, curling into a ball at his feet and lay there, quiet. Then my father saw me too, rushed over to throw me over his shoulder, to carry me back into my bed.
“You know the forest painting mommy has been working on, the one with the fox?” I nodded. “She was trying to rip it up. She wasn’t happy with the orange. It was the wrong orange, and well, I just liked this one too much,” he rested his bloody hand on my face until I drifted back to sleep.
After that incident my mother calmed for a while. She painted constantly, though more sleep would have done her well. But she seemed better at least, as if she knew that the less volatile she was in my preteens could maybe minimize the long-term damage, water it down a bit.
On Wednesdays she knew when I had math class and where I sat and that if she hovered outside long enough, she could catch my gaze as I daydreamt or nodded off, as though in that moment she knew that my world had become too still. I’d run outside to meet her as my name broadcasted through the intercom overhead.
We’d escape to the river or to go bowling, to dance and often ended up in bars. We’d find strangers to speak to for hours about everything and nothing and when we were spent or half-drunk, we’d sneak back into her studio. Exhausted from a life lived in hours, I’d crawl into her and she’d run her hands through my hair. She’d whisper promises about the future and urged me to be patient. And when I woke the next morning, she’d be there, painting. These were the days I learned to love, moments with her, little secrets we kept from my father.
Grandma died in late September, at the beginning of peak foliage, when the leaves of the northern red oaks line the streets and crunch underfoot. She wouldn’t have had it any other way, a kind of sign to the rest of us that the season was hers, for good. I wish she would’ve stayed longer, to answer my questions, to help me better understand my mother, who at the funeral, drank rapidly from a flask, said very little, and then wildly circled the outside of the church, barefoot.
The night before my eighteenth birthday, after the worst of my mother’s episodes, we had her committed. It was a family decision. When we dropped her off at the hospital, she let out a long howl that turned to a whimpering. It all came from the bottom of her. We felt like we had betrayed her. Maybe we had. The hardest part was convincing my father. “The cuts and bruises heal pretty quickly,” he’d say, always half joking. But this time she had broken into a cottage after a night of heavy drinking, and stole two boys from some poor family, to take them swimming at two in morning. Their four-year-old almost drowned. After a battery of tests, my mother was diagnosed bipolar. We needed her to get better, for us.
My father’s call interrupted my lecture. His voice broke into tiny pieces. My mother escaped from the recreation room, up to the roof as the entire staff chased her. A nurse was reaching for her when she leapt into the Winooski River. I knew she was too quick, too tricky. It’s what she’s good at.
My father blamed himself. I don’t think he’s ever stopped, though maybe it was Grandma who failed. To live in both worlds, my mother’s existence in one would have to suffer. Maybe that’s what Grandma had always feared.
The night she left us, I took the bus from campus to her studio. In the middle of the dark and naked room, her easel stood bare, unattended. I walked closer to it, eyes swelling as I revisited every one of my Grandma’s words in my head, looking for answers as one often does when they have lost a loved one so tragically. I went over to the window. Looking out, I saw the forest she had been painting on that disturbing night. There my mother waited, not manic, nor violent, just a still, painfully perfect orange.
Sacha John Bissonnette is a Trinidadian, French Canadian poet and short story writer living in Ottawa. His work has appeared Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Litro UK, Cease, Cows, The Maine Review, and elsewhere. He is nominated for Best Small Fictions. He loves film and your grandma’s cooking and tweets @sjohnb9.